In secret, Baba loves to dance. My father’s bare feet move slowly across the embroidery on our Afghan carpet, as the sleeves of his dove-gray kameez billow to a beat emanating from a portable stereo. My mother peeks out of the kitchen, laughing softly as he throws his arms into the air. Like most Afghan men, Baba is guarded, steeled by the memories of war and the demands of a patriarchal culture. His tufted beard and piercing black eyes often intimidate. In photographs, he rarely smiles. But music betrays him, forcing a sheepish, mischievous grin across his face.
As a young girl, I was ashamed by these glimpses into my father’s more joyful dispositions. Our family and our province are ethnically Pashtun. In Pashtun culture, the strength of a man and the honor of his family are determined by his stoicism and authority. He is expected never to display emotion.
A man is also obligated to keep a tight rein on the women in his household. In the most traditional communities, it is the deepest shame for a man to ever allow his wife or daughters to be seen, even through the whispered shadows of a doorway.
Men in Afghanistan spend lazy afternoons under the dusty shade of local pomegranate groves, gather at restaurants to enjoy Indian biryani and cans of ice-cold Coca-Cola, and maneuver motorcycles every morning into the city for work. Women spend their days indoors, with only a brief respite to drink tea with friends before lunch. They squat low to the ground and sweep cracked tiles with brooms made of dried grass, the embroidered hems of their salwaar kameez dresses just brushing the floor. They wring sopping-wet, hand-washed laundry and hang it on clotheslines to dry. In the evenings, as a hazy dusk falls on the city, the women emerge from the kitchen. They serve elaborate meals to their husbands and sons, meals that they have taken the entire day to prepare: lamb soup with vegetables and coriander, rice crispy with crystallized sugar, lentil stews, fresh tomato salads, half-moon flatbreads studded with caraway seeds. It is only after the men eat that many women do, spooning cold leftovers onto their plates from behind the kitchen doors.
Baba could never devote himself completely to this culture of conservatism. He grew up with a gravely ill father, so his mother filled the traditional male role at home. He was one of only a handful of university-educated men in our province. He had spent years in the bustling capital city of Kabul and even visited Russia, a land devoid of restrictions in the name of religion. So he never forced the women in our house to inform him when they left for the bazaar or to visit a friend. He let his daughters go to school. When no other fathers would, he danced, listened to his children sing, and allowed us all to take photographs and watch movies.
The neighbors gossiped about us: Did you know he allows his little girl to go swimming in that river near the pomegranate groves? Look, look! His wife’s sleeves aren’t long enough to cover her wrists. I was ashamed that my father was seen as weak. Why, I wondered, did he care so much about preserving our little delights and liberties, even in the face of ridicule?
Perhaps it was because he understood what I didn’t yet: in Afghanistan, freedom is transient and every small happiness is fleeting, forever threatened by the weight of tradition and the crossfire of war.
In 1952, Baba was born in Kandahar, a city ringed by mountains and accented by teal-blue mosques and brightly painted food stalls. The streets are without lane markings and swell with people. A cacophony of blaring horns and sputtering motorcycles pierces the air, and smells of stale oil and roasted meat emanate from open-air butcheries and street vendors. A thick, dusty heat snakes through the city, enveloping gray buildings, slinking between the folds of ubiquitous blue burqas and pastel turbans.
Baba grew up in the decades after the British retreated from their occupation of our country, as an exhilarating spirit of patriotism surged across the nation. Under colonial influence, Afghanistan had been a poor country, one without electricity or a basic educational system. But independence offered the promise of cultural and institutional reform, led by King Zahir Shah and his cousin, Prime Minister General Mohammed Daoud Khan. Beginning in 1953, Khan enacted widely popular social measures centered on women’s rights. Most notably, he lifted restrictions on women entering the workforce and allowed them to decide on their own whether to wear a veil in public.
As a part of his broader push toward modernization, the prime minister also solicited investment and military assistance from foreign nations. Brimming Cold War tensions served Afghanistan well, as both Moscow and Washington poured money into the country in an attempt to secure political influence. In northern Afghanistan, the Soviets were dominant. They spearheaded massive infrastructure projects, improved the education system, and funded scholarships for young Afghans. In the south, where Kandahar is located, the United States had more influence. American engineers flew in to help build new highways, dams, and electric power plants. They started construction on the Kandahar International Airport, whose terminals were meant to have the same grandeur as those in neighboring India and Pakistan, with state-of-the-art underground refueling stations and massive airport hotels for travelers who would spend layovers in Kandahar while traveling between Europe and East Asia. Local schools suddenly offered English lessons taught by volunteers from the Peace Corps. It wasn’t uncommon to witness groups of sixteen- and seventeen-year-old boys belting out American nursery rhymes like “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.”
Americans affiliated with government-aid organizations or private contractors settled in southern Afghanistan. In Kandahar, many lived in homes or barracks erected at Manzel Bagh, a palace gifted to a private contracting company by the king. The nearby city of Lashkar Gah was nicknamed “Little America” for the number of American vacationers and workers who stayed there. As a child, I heard many stories of what my family thought of these visitors from the West. “They were wealthy and so different—we loved to just peek at them as they walked down the street,” my aunt would tell me. “But . . . well, they were a little uncultured,” someone would chime in, before describing the brazen assurance with which American women walked through Kandahar. “They let doors slam behind them! When they would eat dinner—Sola!—they spoke so loudly, their voices carried to the next house over.”
As a child, Baba was mostly oblivious to this whirlwind of change occurring outside his door. Instead, he was consumed by domestic troubles. His father, whom I called Agha Jan, had been struck with an undiagnosed illness, likely diabetes. That left Baba’s mother, whom I called Ana Bibi, to care for their ten children and help provide for the family.
In the beginning, Agha Jan’s illness was not too serious, and he tried to maintain his dominance as the patriarch of the household. As Baba remembers him, his father was a simple man. He was set in his ways, stuck in the past, and cantankerous about the cultural liberalization occurring around him. In contrast, Ana Bibi, came from an educated family, though she herself never attended school. She possessed a fierce intellect and often wielded it against her husband.
For instance, Agha Jan did not believe that girls should be allowed to attend school. Ana Bibi disagreed but brokered a compromise. “Our daughters will attend school until fifth grade,” she said. “After that, we will pull them out.”
Agha Jan agreed. But somehow their daughters never seemed to reach the fifth grade. One girl supposedly failed the fourth-grade final exam several years in a row. Another seemed suspiciously old for her class, but Ana Bibi promised she was still finishing second grade. Agha Jan was confused and exasperated. “How can these girls still not be in the fifth grade?!” he would ask. But somehow he trusted Ana Bibi, who cleverly managed to educate five of her six daughters right underneath her husband’s nose.
Copyright © 2023 by Sola Mahfouz. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.